Today as I sat on a park bench scribbling in a Moleskine and trying not to appear suspicious (difficult for a single male my age), irony washed over me as I flashed back to the book I’d read earlier this week, Stranger Will by Caleb J Ross. One element of the story features a cult of aspiring “strangers” who work shifts dressed as bums on benches just like these adjacent to a school playground as part of their indoctrination, while the specially-chosen children in their eyeline learn life lessons of their own from their shared leader, Mrs. Rose. She’s a charismatic Tyler Durden type (both mentor and antagonist) with utopian dreams but dystopian methods who guides our William through the not-so-traumatic experience of losing his unborn child.
That William never wanted to bring a child into this awful world to begin with—even in his fiancée’s last trimester—will make most readers squirm. The point is repeatedly driven home as Will derives much of his outlook from his experiences as a crime-scene cleaner, but these are also what lends the novel its unique quality: the more flawed the character, the greater the possible arc for redemption. We are so repulsed by his refusal to praise the miracle of Life, until we meet other kindred spirits who put his own beliefs in perspective and challenge him to embrace greater ideals. At this point Will becomes more identifiable and sympathetic as he befriends a child at the park who sparks the conflict within him.
While the themes and literary devices employed in the book are reminiscent of Chuck Palahniuk’s early work (it’s also the May selection for discussion at Chuck’s site’s book club), the prose stylings are pure Ross. Dark, disturbing imagery combined with great sensory detail and a grotesque wink now and then. We smell the toxic chemicals of his trade that infuse Will’s entire existence, from wardrobe to vehicle to house. His infected dog bite that festers throughout the story has us scratching at our own arm. He does a masterful job of putting the reader in Will’s head, especially given that the story is written in third-person (a fact I had to verify just now, so close is the point of view to the protag). This is not a beach read; bring it to the doctor’s office or stash it wherever you hide your smokes from your old lady. Discuss it with your friends via carrier pigeon.
As for criticisms, Otherworld Publications is a young press, evident in some editorial errors like typos and such, and hopefully they’ll correct these in future editions. Also, sometimes the cult ideologies that pervade the narrative seem to be in direct opposition to one another, though I think this is probably true to the spirit of those who subscribe to such belief systems, and having that debate play out actually helps us see the conflicts more clearly.
Caleb will be writing a guest post here next month as part of his Tour for Strange blog tour. In the meantime, pick up Stranger Will for yourself, as well as an e-book of last year’s fantastic story collection, Charactered Pieces. Next up for him is another novel, I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin (Black Coffee Press), and a novella, As a Machine and Parts (Aqueous Books), both of which I’ve had the pleasure of reading and pimping thusly.